Tru Calling

While the initial episode of “Calling” does have some moments, it faces a monumental challenge in squaring off against both “Survivor: Pearl Islands” and the final season of “Friends” when it debuts this fall. For this to stick around – especially when its initial episodes begin in the crucial November sweeps period – it needs to up its game, and fast, from the pilot.

Dushku’s name is a great draw for Buffy fanboys and girls, but in order for Fox to gain a foothold on Thursdays the network needs a much stronger series than what was shown in the pilot. Right now it feels largely derivative, borrowing elements from “Six Feet Under,” “Run Lola Run,” “Groundhog Day,” “Hack,” and even “Kim Possible.” Not a good sign at all for a night that has been a sore point in the Fox schedule since it moved “The Simpsons” to Sundays in 1995; since that time the network has often been forced to stick to movies and tired game shows like “30 Seconds to Fame,” like it did this past season.

The series begins with a 12-year-old Tru Davies at her mother’s funeral, where she hears the dead talking to her for the first time. Even though her mother is her murdered right of front of her, her dead mother tells her all is forgiven. She tells this to her older sister, saying she wishes she could go back in time to help her. Her sister tells her that she cannot.

Cue to 10 years later, where we meet an older Tru, who has become a college track star and is dealing with family problems. We first meet her running. And running some more. It seems she’s always running throughout the pilot. She’s late for her college graduation and manages to get there in time to pick up her diploma, naturally. The next day, we see her waking up with her former college professor and the future med school student losing her internship because of dropped funding. Another job is available, though, her would-be mentor there tells her, as a forensic attendant in the city morgue.

“Are you sure you’re interested in working here, because – I’ll be honest – most girls as pretty as you that come here, well, they’re dead” is the response she gets before she’s hired by Mack Davis (played by Zach Galifianakis, the bright star here, albeit an odd bright star). Showing her the “crypt,” he tells her this is where every unnatural death comes to rest initially, be they suicides, murders or otherwise. She’s to begin that night, the graveyard shift.

Viewers then find out more about her family. Her sister is a lawyer with a slight coke problem, while her brother is a deadbeat gambler who has just been beat up for not paying up on a lost couple of hands.

Her first guest to the morgue is a 20-something woman named Rebecca Morgan, who has a hole in the back of her head the size of a baseball. Left alone by the other attendant, Tru hears rumblings coming from the morgue. In one of the stand-out scenes from the pilot (well, the only one, really), the dead girl opens her eyes, turns her head and whispers, “Help me.”

Suddenly, it’s morning. Not the next day’s morning, but the morning she gets the job at the morgue. She’s gone back in time and now has a chance to save Morgan. She re-interviews at the morgue. Asking if there’s something they can do to stop unnatural deaths in a general sense, Davis tells her, “Is it hard to see people dead before their timer Yes. But, Tru, if you’re going to work, you have to accept that there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But Tru has a gift that enables her to help. So she tracks down Morgan through a computer nerd friend (who, interestingly, we see models a video game after her, which are then maddeningly intercut with Dushku running some more), telling her the she is going to die that day, in 10 hours. Morgan, understandably, blows her off. From there, the pilot devolves into a deconstruction of who killed her. Tru begins checking out her friends, centering on the ex-boyfriend and the current married boyfriend. In the end, she finds out that Morgan would have killed herself, but with Tru’s intervention, Morgan lives to see another day. She also finds time to help her brother from the beating he was to take and throws away her sister’s latest package of coke—although we later see her later doing lines in a restaurant bathroom. In the end, we see Tru pledging to help others.

Like I had said above, the pilot needs some work. Although she comes out okay, Dushku looks as if she’s slogging through the sequel to her 2001 film, “Soul Survivors.” The actress really needs to find herself a role that will allow her to shine by showing an evil side and that wicked smile, as she did in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” This show feels tonally wrong for her, judging from the pilot. Going beyond Dushku’s central character, the rest of the supporting cast (save for the goofball Galifianakis) is uninspired.

Still, I think the network realizes that the series needs some quick fixes. The role of Mark Evans, the college professor she previously took classes under and is her current boyfriend, has been recast. Ditto a seasoned forensic attendant who works with her named Guarez, seen briefly in the pilot. In the latter role, Benjamin Benitez joins the cast. There is talk that the pilot will be reshot as well, although it seems most likely that a few scenes will be re-filmed to show the new actors in roles now out of the drama.

As it is here, though, I doubt the show will survive November. But, coupled with “The O.C” as its lead-out, there could be something here for Fox on Thursdays. But I wouldn’t get too attached.

“Tru Calling” debuts on Fox October 30.

Rating: C-